Cairnpapple Hill – A Symbol of All Prehistory

Few ancient monuments can claim anything like a life-span of 4,000 years. But in the Bathgate Hills of West Lothian, we find just such a place – Cairnpapple, in use at various points from the early-ish Neolithic to the Late Iron Age, from approximately 3,500 BC to 500 AD.

The earliest evidence of human activity here is, at first sight, pretty mundane. Merely a series of six vaguely burnt areas, along with two stone axe-heads of such tiny dimensions that they are practically useless – and, indeed, seem never to have been used as such. But a combination of archaeological and geological analysis of the axe-heads reveals a deeper meaning. Significantly, they were produced far away in famous Neolithic “axe-factories” in the mountains of Cumbria and North Wales, whose products have a remarkably-wide distribution in Neolithic Britain at sites similar to Cairnpapple. In this light, their impractical size and unused condition turns them from useless objects into high-status symbols whose real meaning seems to reveal wide-ranging connections within the mainstream cultural network of the period. And this is before any of Cairnpapple’s monuments were actually constructed – but perhaps they are there precisely to prepare the ground, in the most symbolic of senses.

Throughout the Neolithic, of course, our ancestors were gradually moving from a semi-nomadic “hunter-gatherer” lifestyle towards a more settled and technologically-advanced life in agricultural communities. Little remains of their domestic dwellings, which are generally assumed to have been made of wood. But all communities need their public spaces too, and here, the architecture was not only of more lasting construction, but monumentally so. At Cairnpapple – once the ground was prepared – the main story of the place begins with a henge. Most henges were not built on the summit of a hill, but Cairnpapple’s monuments often have rather innovative variations on the common themes of the mainstream. Here, the henge consists of  a large elliptical ditch cut partly into the hard volcanic bedrock of the hill, surrounded by a raised ridge or “berm”. Two entrances led to the centre, one aligned to the north, the other slightly west of the south. The effect is to completely separate two spaces – the internal space of the structure, and the rest of the world beyond it. Aside from the two gaps in the berm, the henge formed an enclosed space marked off from the surrounding landscape – and not least from the routine toils taking place on the farms below. It suggests a space of difference, distinct from the everyday life, literally, and perhaps also symbolically, above it.

Of course, it’s hard to say what actually took place within that space. But the next sequence of structures certainly offers some tantalising clues. The earliest internal monuments include a type of structure found within some other henges, known as a “cove”, often at or near the centre. Cairnpapple’s “cove” was formed of three stones arranged as a rectangle open to the east. And immediately to its east, within the henge, there was also a curiously-angular arc of 7 pits, probably containing upright stones. There is growing evidence that these performed a calendrical function, marking the points of sunrise at the solstices and equinoxes, and several other key seasonal dates in between, calculated from the viewpoint of the “cove”. However, whatever the true function of these structures was, before the Neolithic era was over, they were taken down and replaced by a full-scale circle of 24 stones. Again, there is growing speculation about possible astronomical alignments of a more complex nature, marking out time in finer detail.

But towards the end of the Neolithic era, a new kind of monument was added – perhaps significantly, in the space previously occupied by the “cove”. Here, we find the first burial on the site, known as the “North Grave”. This is a rock-cut grave aligned east-west, covered over by an early example of a cairn. But again, Cairnpapple bends the rules with a little local variation. This first burial-mound has a standing-stone at the western foot of its grave, which would have stuck out of the side of the cairn, half-covered. This is particularly unusual in prehistoric Britain – standing-stones do not generally mark graves, and I know of no other example of one deliberately protruding from the side of a cairn. Perhaps it represents a physical conduit between the everyday world above ground and the realm of the dead below. But whether it has any deliberately-unique significance, or is simply an experimental form that never caught on, we’ll never know. One way or the other, the introduction of a cairn over a burial represents a transition from the last age of Stone to the Bronze Age, which is also the classic age of cairns per se.

Although monumental architecture seems to aim towards eternity, it’s a fact that monumental fashions change from time to time – and old forms can become obsolete. And the first properly Bronze Age cairn at Cairnpapple not only takes us towards a more classic form than that of the North Grave, but is built on top of, and completely covering it. At the same time, it seems that the cairn-builders here no longer had a taste for stone circles – there is good evidence that at least 21 of the circle’s stones were taken down to be re-used in the new great cairn’s low retaining wall, or “kerb”. Within the second cairn itself, two major stone-lined graves or “cist” burials were found, each containing artefacts of various kinds – presumably the necessary equipment for the journey beyond this life. But this second cairn was itself superseded by a third and truly massive cairn, again raised over and incorporating its predecessor – and also over the now in-filled western arc of the henge-ditch. But the apparent lack of respect shown by the Bronze Age cairn-builders to the Neolithic monuments of their predecessors should not blind us to the fact that both of the major cairns display a different kind of respect for the past – neither destroys the previous cairn, but in fact encloses it, almost protectively. This is not mere vandalism, but displays a certain continuity of ancestral tradition – even though the function of the monuments shifts from one mode to another, the place as a whole was still clearly considered to be a place of power and its public expression, and precisely because it was defined as such by the ancestors, whose tombs, if nothing else, were still to be honoured.

Following this remarkable tri-cairn sequence of the Late Neolithic through Bronze Age, no further major monumental work was carried out, although the great cairn that encapsulates the previous two probably remained in use as a place for additional burial deposits (there is certainly evidence of this custom from the second cairn). The final prehistoric chapter of Cairnpapple’s story comes at the end of the Iron Age, on the edge of the historical era as such. Again, there is continuity of tradition and function, although expressed within yet another change of style. On the internal eastern edge of the henge, there is a small cemetery of four rock-cut long-graves whose varied dimensions suggest a family burial-plot. No grave-goods were found within these, and this is unusual for pre-Christian custom. It could be that Cairnpapple’s final chapter represents the early conversion to Christianity, within the final moments of the Roman era. If so, then the choice of Cairnpapple as the place of burial for a Christian family might hint that they claimed some form of noble descent from the ancestors nearby under the cairns. One way or another, it is certain that none of the burials at such places represent the average members of the population, although these high-status tombs are clearly designed for public display on a grand scale. And it is more than likely that this public was the famous Celtic tribe called the Gododdin – whose story we will pick up at numerous other points in this series of articles.

Without doubt, there were far more chapters and paragraphs and footnotes in Cairnpapple’s story than have survived down to our day. And it is also true that the most visually-impressive monuments were taken down well before the prehistoric era was over. But following Stuart Piggott’s excavations of the late 1940s, a functional reconstruction of the layout was possible. Visiting Cairnpapple today, you can see a restoration of the Neolithic henge-ditch, along with minor remains of its enclosing berm. Within this, you can also see the reconstructed post-holes of most of the stone circle – the cairn sequence, of course, having been built over some of these. The outline of the third and greatest cairn can be traced by following its encircling kerb-stones (be careful not to confuse these with the vanished stone circle!). Within these kerb-stones, you can also still see the seven post-holes of the mysterious Neolithic arc. But the main attraction today is the grassed-over concrete reconstruction of the second cairn, artificially hollow to allow us to view one of its two cist-burials, along with the uncovered remains of the North Grave. And it is here that Cairnpapple’s single remaining upright monolith still guards over its empty grave. Overall, Cairnpapple is nothing short of a symbolic index of our early cultural development, a microcosm of our prehistoric story not only on the regional scale, but with echoes still resonating far beyond.

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2 Responses to Cairnpapple Hill – A Symbol of All Prehistory

  1. Hi, Vince!

    Unfortunately, there are no officially pre-arranged tours or transport to Cairnpapple. Historic Scotland tends not to do that kind of thing for any of its monuments. However, you might find some information on visiting Cairnpapple on my Cairnpapple website –

    Public transport (bus or train) will easily get you as far as Bathgate. But at which point, you’d either have to walk up (with an OS map) for an hour or two, or get a taxi (probably best to book the return taxi in advance, though!). Cairnpapple isn’t quite on the transport network, it has to be said!

    However, feel free to contact me via my own website – we might be able to arrange a custom-made guided tour (with transport all-in, and maybe some other related monuments along the way) for a modest fee. 😉

    Hope this helps. 🙂

  2. Vince Hackley says:

    Are there tours or prearranged transport to visit cairnpapple if you are staying in Edinburgh? Approximately how long a bus or car ride is it from Edinburgh? I will be there on business in Sept 2011 and would like very much to visit the site, but will not have my own transport.

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